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Linguistic Relativity and Linguistic Determinism: Idiom in
20th Century Cornish
Paper presented at the New Directions in Celtic Studies Conference, Newquay,
University of Luton
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Jenner (1904: xi) wrote,
Why should Cornishmen learn Cornish? There is no money in it, it serves no
practical purpose, and the literature is scanty and of no great originality or value.
The question is a fair one, the answer is simple. Because they are Cornishmen.
In spite of serving “no practical purpose, during the course of the twentieth century, the
numbers of Cornish speakers has slowly but steadily increased. It would seem that there
is a further raison d’être for a living Cornish language today if it entails a unique world
view that reflects Cornish culture. In this paper, I set out to determine the extent to which
the Cornish language reflects Cornish culture, the extent to which the Cornish language
entails a particular world view, and the extent to which being able to speak Cornish
effects the way that one thinks.
2 Language and Thought Processes
Language is not just a means of communication. Our culture and even our thought
processes are inflenced by language to some degree. The notion goes back to the
nineteenth century scholar, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). Humboldt equated
language and thought exactly in a hypothesis that has become known as the
'Weltanschauung' (world-view) hypothesis. In Humboldt's opinion, language completely
determines thought and thought is impossible without language.
Der mensch lebt mit den Gegenständen hauptsächlich, ja...sogar ausschliesslich
so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zuführt.
Humans mainly live with objects... even exclusively so, as language conveys
2.1 The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
In the first half of the 20th century, language was seen as important in shaping our
perception of reality. This was mostly due to Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf who
said that language predetermines what we see in the world around us. In other words,
language filters reality - we see the real world only in the categories of our language.
This has become known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It starts from the premise that
everyone has a fundamental need to make sense of the world. We impose order on the
world in order to make sense of it and language is the principle tool available to us for
organising the world. Sapir (1956) expresses it thus,
... the real world is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group.
We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the
language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.
The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the
same world with different labels attached.
Whorf (1956) goes on to say,
We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do
largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an
agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the
patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated
one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by
subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement
In support of these views, Sapir and Whorf examined the differences between English
and several other languages. They found that in Eskimo, for example, there are many
words for 'snow': 'falling snow', 'snow on the ground', 'hard-packed snow', and so on. In
Aztec, on the other hand, there is only one word used to represent 'snow', 'cold' and 'ice'.
But it was not only simply with differences in vocabulary with which Sapir and Whorf
were concerned. They were also interested in differences in structure. A case in point is
that the Hopi language does not include any concept of time seen as a dimension.
Realising how vitally important the concept of time is in Western physics, Whorf
suggested that a Hopi physics would be radically different from English physics and that
a Hopi physicist and an English physicist would find it virtually impossible to understand
3 Non-equivalence & Surrogate Equivalence
In the vocabulary of Cornish, as in every language, many lexical items are found that are
language and culture specific. From the mining industry we get the Cornish word atal
meaning 'mine waste'. From the fishing industry we get beetia, 'to mend fishing nets'.
From Cornish cuisine we get foogan and hogan for types of 'pastry cake'. Racca refers
to 'a traditional Cornish pub tune session'. Troyl refers to 'a traditional Cornish dance
gathering'. Furry is a particular type of processional dance that is done in Cornwall.
4 Interlingual Synonymy and Lexical Anisomorphism
Of course there are some Cornish words which have complete translation equivalence
with their English counterparts. Bara, for example, is always translated into English as
'bread', and 'bread' is always translated into Cornish as bara. However, complete
isomorphism between pairs of translation equivalents tends to be the exception rather
than the rule. For example, the English noun, 'book', is always translated into Cornish as
levar. But levar may be translated into English as either 'book' or 'volume' (i.e. one of a
set of books). One has only to browse through any bilingual dictionary to observe that
this kind of lexical anisomorphism is very common.
5 Linguistic Relativity: Language as a Conceptual System
The notion that distinctions encoded in one language are unique to that language alone is
known as linguistic relativity. According to this theory, there is no limit to the structural
diversity of languages.
A typical example is the semantics of colour words.
When we perceive colour with our eyes, we are sensing
that portion of electromagnetic radiation that is visible
light. In fact, the spectrum of visible light is a continuum
of light waves with frequencies that increase at a
continuous rate from one end to the other, each colour
gradually blending into the next; there are no sharp
boundaries. In other words, there are no distinct colours
like red and green in nature.
Like many other creatures, we possess the visual
apparatus for discriminating colour differences, in terms
of gradations of hue, brightness and saturation. But in
addition, unlike animals, we have the apparatus for
categorising these colours verbally. In other words we are
able to place a particular shade in one ‘pigeon-hole’ rather than another.
We impose boundaries when, in English, we talk of green, blue, grey, brown and red. It
takes little thought to realise that these discriminations are arbitrary - and indeed in other
languages the boundaries are different. This can be seen in the comparison of some
English language colours with their counterparts in Cornish.
Colours are not objective, naturally determined segments of reality. Language guides us
in seeing the spectrum in terms of the arbitrarily established categories that we call
colours. In other words, the colours we see are predetermined by what our language
prepares us to see.
These examples show that the language we use, whichever it happens to be, divides not
only the colour spectrum, but indeed our whole reality, which is a 'kaleidoscopic flux of
impressions', into completely arbitrary compartments.
6 Interlingual Hyponomy: Convergence and Divergence
There is divergence when a lexeme, contrasted with the lexical units of the target
language, must be divided into several sub-meanings. There is convergence when two or
more sub-meanings with their lexical units correspond to one and the same lexical unit in
the target language. For example, the Cornish word, nyedga, can be translated into
English as 'swim', 'float' or 'fly'.
Some speakers of Cornish have sought to disambiguate by introducing the neologism,
nuevya. They then use nuevya to translate 'swim' and nyedga to translate 'fly. In this
manner, the semantic structure of Cornish can be made to mirror that of English.
However, it might be argued that this is unnecessary since the particular sense of nyedga
can usually be determined from the context.
Yesterday we went to the beach to swim.
Last year we flew to Majorca for our holidays.
Furthermore, nyedga can be disambiguated, if necessary, by additional information.
nyedga en dowr (i.e. nyedga in water)
nyedga en ebbarn (i.e. nyedga in sky)
The fact that it is possible to disambiguate the Cornish expression in this manner shows
that language does not completely determine the way that we think.
7 Lexical Anisomorphism
Although language does not completely determine the way that we think, the way that a
language reflects a particular worldview is evident when we compare the contiguous set
of words in Cornish that relate to the semantic field of LAND with their translation
equivalents in English. Two phenomena are evident. Firstly as in the case of colour
terms, there is overlapping meaning. Secondly there is a general tendancy to convergence
from English to Cornish.
A general tendancy to convergence from English to Cornish comes as no great surpirise.
Cornish-English dictionaries contain roughly between 9,000 and 16,000 main entries,
whereas the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains about 290,500 main
Convergence between English and Cornish does not, however, invariably operate in this
direction. The English word, 'hill', may be translated as meneth, bern, brea, bryn, ryn,
ambel, garth, mulvra or godolgh. Meneth is used to refer to Cornwall's higher peaks, such
as Roughtor and Brown Willy, or, outside of Cornwall, to mountains. Bron means
'breast' as well as hill. Brea is used to refer to the most prominent hill in a district.
Bryn is starting to fall out of usage. Ryn refers to a 'hill' in the sense of projecting ground,
or a steep hill-side or slope. Garth is used to refer to a long narrow hilltop. Ambel refers
to the side of a hill. Mulvra refers to a round-topped hill. Godolgh is a very small hill.
The English word, 'valley', may be translated into Cornish as nans, golans, tenow, coom,
deveren, glyn, or haunans. Golans refers to a small valley. Tenow refers to low ground or
a valley bottom. Coom is a tributary valley. Deveren refers to a wet valley or a valley
with a river. Glyn is a large, deep valley. Haunans refers to a deep valley with very steep
Since Cornwall is a place that abounds with hills and valleys, it is not surprising that
Cornish has developed many words in this lexical field. A particular world view is
evident here, one that tends to make finer distinctions than English and reflects local
topography. It would appear that a Cornish speaker who uses this full range of
vocabulary to describe the landscape, actually views the landscape differently from an
English speaker who does not speak Cornish. Thinking in Cornish, then, is to some
ecxtent different from thinking in English. I am not suggesting that language completely
determines thought. Nevertheless there seems to be a link between language and thought
and the Cornish lexicon reflects that which is inherent in Cornish culture.
Tourism is very much a twentieth century phenomenon in Cornwall. So the ways in
which the English word 'tourist' may be translated into Cornish are particularly relevant.
There are seven possible Cornish translation equivalents for 'tourist': vyajyer, tervyajyor,
tornyas, havyas, gwandryas, touryst and troillier. Their morphological derivation reveals
how they semantically differ from one another. The notion of tourists as people whose
presence in Cornwall is temporary, is reflected in tornyas which derives from torn
(occasion, time) and -yas (agency noun ending). Havyas, from hav (summer) and -yas,
specifies the time of year when tourists are particularly prevalent in Cornwall. The notion
of tourists as people who are in transit is reflected in gwandryas, troillier and vyajyer.
Tervyajyor has pejorative connotation especially if it is perceived as a blend of terva (to
make a tumult) and vyajor (someone on a journey).
(fervent) + vyajor or terva
(make a tumult)
torn (occasion, time) + -yas
hav (summer) + -yas
vyaj (journey) + -yer
gwandra (wander, roam) + -yas
troillier troill (a spin, trip, tour)+ -ier
8 Language and Gender
The way in which gender is depicted in the Cornish lexicon shows certain marked biases,
in particular with regard to professions. The various Cornish dictionaries provide us with
Cornish words for masculine fishermen, farmers and doctors. It is assumed that doctors
are necessarily male and that nurses are always female. The name of the political party,
Mebyon Kernow, translates as "sons of Cornwall"; there is no mention of Cornwall's
daughters. Of course, it is not a prerequisite that Cornish be used in this way. It is
possible to create feminine forms, such as pyskadores and medheges, to translate
'fisherwoman' and 'female doctor'. The feminine suffix, -es, can be removed from
clavyjores to create clavyjor, 'male nurse'. Nevertheless, since Cornish grammar has no
neuter gender, it is somewhat difficult to refer to occupations in a way that includes both
sexes. If one wants to translate the English sentence,
Nurses report to the doctor
into Cornish, one is obliged to say something like,
Clavyjorion ha clavyjoresow a dannvon dhe'n medhek po medheges.
fisherman poscader fish-wife gwreag an puscas
dean an puscas gwerthores an puscas
farmer tyack farmer's wife tyeges
doctor methak nurse clavyjores
Sons of Cornwall Mebyon Kernow
Syntax is another area in which Cornish differs from English. The English sentence,
'I am a doctor'
can be translated into Cornish as either,
Methack o ve
or Me ew methack.
These all have the same referential meaning. However the two different Cornish
translations entail a difference in emphasis. Methack o ve has the sense, 'I am a doctor
(not a nurse)'. Whereas, Me ew methack has the sense, 'I am a doctor (not you)'. Of course
in spoken English this difference in emphasis is conveyed phonologically, by placing a
stress on the appropriate word. But in written English it is much more difficult. One has
to resort to a rather convoluted structure such as 'It is I who am a doctor'.
Methack o ve
Me ew methack
I am a doctor
Jory a garaTamsyn
Jory loves Tamsyn
Tamsyn loves Jory
The flexibility of word order in Cornish can also lead to ambiguity. For example,
Jory a gar Tamsyn
can mean either 'Jory loves Tamsyn'
or 'Tamsyn loves Jory'.
Morphology is another area in which Cornish structures meaning in a different way from
English. This is evident in the way that nouns are inflected for number. The Cornish noun
can take up to five possible forms: singular, plural, collective, singulative and dual. Thus
the Cornish word, ger ('an utterance'), has the singulative form, geren ('a word') and the
plural forms, geryow and gerennow. The collective form, hun ('sleep'), also has a singular
form, huneys ('a sleep'). Luef ('a hand') has both a plural form, lufyow ('hands'), and a dual
form, dyulef ('a pair of hands').
Singular Plural Collective Singulative Dual
dowr water dowren a water-
gerennow words ger an utterance
/ a phrase geren a single
sleep hun sleep
gwedhennow trees gwyth a wood gwedhen a tree
newlow clouds of
fog / fogs newl fog newlen a cloud of
luef a hand lufyow hands dyulef a pair of
This dual form of the noun was originally restricted to parts of the body that occur in
pairs. But during the twentieth century it has spawned a number of neologisms in
Cornish. Thus diwros (literally a pair of wheels) is used to translate 'bycycle'. From this,
the verbs, diwrosa ('to cycle') and diwrosya ('to go on a cycle tour') are derived. Similarly
dewweder translates 'a pair of glasses' or 'spectacles'. Dewdhen (a pair of people)
translates 'a couple'. Dewbries (literally 'a pair of spouses') refers to a married couple. The
adjective, diwyethek (diw- + yeth + -ek) translates 'bilingual'. And from diwyethek the
noun diwyethogeth ('bilingualism') is derived.
Another way of creating neologisms is to calque. A calque is a type of borrowing, in
which the morphemic constituents of a word borrowed from another language are
translated item by item into equivalent morphemes in Cornish. A good example of a
calque from English is dydh-tardh, 'daybreak' . Note how this calque follows English
syntax. The usual Cornish syntax would have given tardh-an-jydh. Normal Cornish
syntax is followed in the calques Aberfal and Aberplymm for 'Falmouth' and 'Plymouth'.
Gwirbryntyans ('copyright') is an interesting calque insofar as its elements are not
accurate translations of their English counterparts. Gwir signifies 'right' in the sense of
'true' or 'truth'. The 'right' in 'copyright' signifies 'entitlement'. In other words, if one holds
a copyright, one is entitled to make copies. The Cornish word for 'entitlement' is pewas.
Furthermore pryntya refers specifically to 'printing' and does not cover other forms of
copying. One might have expected dasscryf-pewas as a calque for English 'copyright'.
Not all calques borrow from English. Aval-dor (potato) is a calque on the French, pomme
English multiword idiomatic expressions are frequently calqued, especially in
conversational Cornish. Thus we find expressions such as:
onen da!: 'nice one'
kudenn vyth: 'no problem'
heb grev: 'no problem'
yskynnewgh 'gas dewros: 'get on your bike'
bos kompes gans: be even with
maga feri avel hok: as high as a kite
effeyth chi gweder: greenhouse effect
Not all idioms are necessarily calqued from English though.
hager dowl: rotten luck
ny wrav fors: I don't care
ny settyav gwelenn gala: 'I don't care a straw'
tewlel dhe skoell: treat wantonly, carelessly cast aside
ty a'n pren: you'll catch it
gwellha dha jer: cheer up
ny'm deur: it does not concern me
ny vern: it is of no concern
gul anvri dhe: show disrespect for
yn trogel: in the flesh
kavoes/settya dalghenn yn: get a grip on
It may be concluded that being able to speak Cornish does not determine the way that one
thinks. However, it is clear that the Cornish language does entail its own unique
worldview and this can have an effect on the way that Cornish speakers think. As the
vocabulary of Cornish increases, semantic convergence from English to Cornish will
decrease and Cornish will, to some extent, become more like English in the semantic
structure of its lexicon. Whilst Cornwall retains its own distinct culture, as in the case of
its traditional music and dance, the Cornish lexicon will continue to reflect that. As the
way of life changes and old industries change or disappear, words that are specific to
those industries will fall into disuse. New industries, such as tourism, however, demand
new vocabulary which, as we have seen , may be semantically structured in a different
manner from English to reflect a Cornish cultural perspective.
Jenner, Henry (1904) A Handbook of the Cornish Language: Chiefly in its Latest
Stages with some Account of its History and Literature London: David Nutt.
The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) 2
ed., ed. J. Simpson and E.C. Weiner. Vols. 1-
20. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sapir, E. (1956) Language, Culture and Personality (ed. D G Mandelbaum): Berkeley &
Los Angeles: Unversity of California.
Whorf, B. L. (1956), ed. J.B. Carroll Language, Thought and Reality Cambridge, Mass.